Wednesday, 31 December 2014

End of Year Review

So it's that time of year once again. Another year has flown by and it's time to look back and reflect on the birding year. As usual my birding divides rather neatly into three sections: patch birding on Port Meadow, county birding in Oxon and out of county trips to work on my national list.

Port Meadow
I'm going to do a detailed review of the year on my patch blog at Port Meadow Birding so I'll just be very brief here. There are two main yardsticks that I use to measure how successful a year has been on Port Meadow: firstly what the year list total is and secondly how many rarer birds were seen. As far as the first measure was concerned it's been a poor year with only 125 on the year list, well below the usual total of 130+. Notable misses include Greenshank, Grasshopper Warbler, Barn Owl and Little Owl. As far as Rares are concerned though it hasn't been too bad: the first half of the year produced a Glossy Ibis (a Patch first), a brief Spoonbill (almost annual these days) and a fly-over Great White Egret that someone reported on RBA (a rather tenuous patch first). Patch Bird of the Year has to go to the Glossy Ibis.

County Birding
Unequivocally it's been a good year for me as far as county listing is concerned. Regular readers will know that I do find county birding difficult: one can go for long periods without getting a county tick and there's nothing that one can do about it. This year however, there was no such problem. I managed six county ticks this year, some of which were really top drawer birds.

It all started in January when a Glossy Ibis turned up at Bicester on a flooded field by a garden centre. I twitched it successfully on the breaking of the news that day only for it to turn out to be one of the best years for this species in Oxon birding history. It might have been the same bird all along but later on in the year a Glossy Ibis turned up for a couple of days on Port Meadow before decamping to Otmoor where it stayed for two and a half months. Still it was a nice county tick for me.

It's been the Year of the Glossy Ibis in the county

The next county bird of interest came in April when a Wood Warbler was found over in the west of the county. Whilst this species is reported more or less annually in the county, normally it's a single observer sighting of a bird passing rapidly through the county. However this bird stuck around for a couple of days enabling quite a few people to unblock this species.

The Wood Warbler (c) Ewan Urquhart

Just four days later I was just returning from a visit to the Meadow when news broke of a Whiskered Tern at Otmoor. To start with I couldn't go as I had to take my daughter to her martial arts class but then she decided she was too tired so about an hour after the news broke I was finally free to try for it. I ended up running most of the way from the Otmoor car park down to the first screen where in a farcical manner my optics were too steamed up from my exertions for me to see anything. Finally the fog cleared and I managed three minutes of crippling views before it flew off into the sunset. Talk about a close shave!

The Whiskered Tern (c) Tezzer

No more than two weeks later in what was a real spring purple patch for Oxon birding a Spotted Sandpiper was found at Farmoor. This proved to be a very elusive and difficult bird to catch up with: I managed brief in-flight views of it on the morning that it was found before it disappeared. It was then re-found a few days later when thanks to an instant response from me to twitch it I managed to get good views of it on the ground before it again disappeared. Thankfully eventually people worked out that it was roosting at Farmoor before heading off elsewhere during the day and the majority of the county's birders managed to catch up with it on a weekend dawn raid.

The elusive Spotted Sandpiper (c) Roger Wyatt

Regular readers know that my real county bogey bird has been Sandwich Tern. Whilst this species is quite often seen several times over the course of a year it's almost always as a fly-through at Farmoor. I've lost count of the number of failed twitches that I've made to try and see this bird. Well finally this year it fell when a pair lingered for a evening in June at the reservoir and I managed to catch up with them. I can't tell you how relieved I am that I no longer have to drop everything because a Sandwich Tern is flying through Farmoor.

At last a Sandwich Tern!

Whilst the spring passage had proved excellent in the county, it was a much more muted affair this autumn with very few good birds about. There was a twitchable Wryneck at Radley (which I didn't go for having fluked a sighting at Otmoor the previous year), an Otmoor Dartford Warbler that I missed as I was in Cornwall and a one day Red-backed Shrike, also at Otmoor that I dropped everything to go for and was rewarded with some stunning views at close quarters of what is sadly a very rare county bird indeed.

Red-backed Shrike

So six lovely county ticks and one bit of horrible Dartford Warbler grippage. It's been a good year! Other notable county birding trips have included a singing Spotted Crake, the regular Red-necked Grebe at Farmoor, some Sibe Chiffies at Abingdon and the showy pair of Curlew Sandpipers at Farmoor. My county bird of the year has to be the Whiskered Tern which was to all intents and purposes a county first as well as a lifer for me. The County Grip of the Year is of course Dartford Warbler.

National Birding
For birding purposes I mainly leave the county either to twitch something for my national list or to go to Cornwall though this year I can now add ferrying our eldest daughter to and from Durham University to this list. It's been a rather low key year as far as my national listing is concerned. Whereas last year I managed a stonking 21 lifers on my UK list this year it was a much more modest 13 species.

It all started in February when a Red-flanked Bluetail was found in a rather non-descript location in Gloucestershire. This species was once a top-drawer rarity though these days they are becoming much more common with annual occurrences in the country. Still it was a new bird for me and being only an hour away I didn't take much persuading to pay it a visit. A very nice bird it was too!

Red-flanked Bluetail
The next bird of interest was the Great Spotted Cuckoo in Pembrokeshire which I twitched on the way to Cornwall though even by my standards I was stretching this interpretation of en route! There's something wonderfully exotic about foreign Cuckoos to me that means I'll make an extra effort to go and see them. Fortunately the bird showed very nicely and I had a great time watching it.

Great-spotted Cuckoo
There then followed a straight-forward twitch to Cambridgeshire for the Baikal Teal and then the Otmoor Whiskered Tern which I've already mentioned in the county review.

The exotic Baikal Teal

Other notable trips in the first half of the year where down to Devon for the long-staying Ross's Gull, over the Norfolk for the Spectacled Warbler, to Gloucestershire for distant views of the Marsh Sandpiper, to Cheltenham to see the Night Heron and over to the Isle of Wight for distant views of the breeding Bee-eaters there.

You've gotta love a Ross's Gull
Autumn proper kicked off with a trip to Titchfield Haven to see the Siberian Stonechat, a lovely little bird. Then there was the first of what I'm hoping is going to be a long series of productive trips to the north east as I ferry our eldest daughter to and from Uni. On this first trip I managed to see the long-staying Masked Shrike at Spurn with bonus birds in the form of a Little Bunting and a Richard's Pipit - a very productive trip! 

The Spurn Masked Shrike
Titchfield Haven Siberian Stonechat

There were also a couple (see here and here) of rather low key trips to Cornwall that produced a few good birds but nothing outstanding. The pick of the bunch was a self-found Barred Warbler at Pendeen though I only saw it for about thirty seconds. There are also a couple of trips down to Hampshire to catch up with the Franklin's Gull that was coming in to roost there each evening. Fortunately on the second trip it came in nice and early and showed really well.

The Franklin's Gull
The only other trip of note was the return trip to Durham where I caught up with the Wakefield Blyth's Pipit and managed to photograph some Black Grouse at close quarters.

So a moderate year of national birding. As far as the national Bird of the Year award it's a tough choice. Short-listed contenders are: the Great Spotted Cuckoo, the Spectacled Warbler and the Masked Shrike with the Shrike just getting the award. There were several nasty dips this year with the failed trip to Lincolnshire for the Terek Sandpiper, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo miss at PG and my trip to Sussex for the Short-toed Eagle all memorable for all the wrong reasons so I'll award them the Dip of the Year prize jointly.

Insects etc.
Regular readers know that as well as birds I also do butterflies, Odonata and moths and this year I also started to look at flowers as well. On the butterfly front there was just one trip this year, to Gloucestershire for Marsh Fritillary followed by Pearl-bordered Fritillary in a nearby wood.

Marsh Fritillary
On the Odonata front, I made a couple of trips: firstly to the west of Oxon to catch up with Small Red-eyed Damselfly and then to the fabled site of Warren Heath where I managed to score both Emerald Dragonflies as well as lots of Golden-ringed Dragons and Black Darters.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
I've been quietly mothing away for most of the year and steadily adding to my modest garden moth list. Highlights of the year included a small fern-loving micro (who's latin name I can't even remember) that was only the third record for the county, a Toadflax Brocade that is gradually colonising the county but wasthe first few records for my VC23 area of the county and a Brindled Ochre caught down at Pendeen that turns out to be a pretty scarce species.

Brindled Ochre
As I mentioned above, I've been starting to get to know my local plants as well, both in Oxfordshire and down in Cornwall. It's a great way to pass the time in the long summer doldrums whilst the birding is slack and I'm enjoying getting to know all the different species.

So there you have it, that was 2014 in what was probably far too much detail for most of my readers. Still it's been a great reminiscing opportunity for me whilst doing this write-up and I'm very much looking forward to the new year and wondering what great birds I shall see. Finally it only remains for me to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I leave you with the now traditional Oxon county photo montage for 2014

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